North Dakota Supreme Court: An Officer's Camera Is More Trustworthy Than His BS Testimony
from the fuzz-getting-caught-by-the-fuzz dept
While body-worn cameras have mainly proven to be a boon for prosecutors, rather than the all-purpose accountability tools many of us thought they would be [raises hand sheepishly], the mere existence of more recordings is still a net gain for the general public.
When cops are doing the recording, there’s always a chance footage that disputes their narrative or discredits their testimony may go missing (or never recorded at all). But sometimes everything remains intact and, to officers’ dismay, works against them when they’re lying about stuff. Courts have always tended to give cops more credence than defendants in criminal trials, but the increase in recordings has freed courts to defer to the witness with no skin in the game: the recording device.
This doesn’t always happen. Sometimes judges would rather believe cops than their own eyes. It happened in this case. Fortunately for the person challenging a stop that resulted in criminal charges, the second court to review the video decided the recording was far more credible than the officer. (via FourthAmendment.com)
A stop that resulted in DUI charges for Michael Boger was predicated on the officer’s claim that the rear license plate wasn’t illuminated. While it may have been true that Boger was under the influence and behind the wheel, it helps to remember that law enforcement isn’t an ends-based operation. The means count, especially if we want the Constitution to mean anything.
Officers need to have a reason to pull over people and subject them to at least temporary detention. Courts aren’t necessarily opposed to a little pretext. But the pretext needs to hold up. And if it’s going to hold up, the stated reason for the stop needs to be credible, rather than immediately undercut by an officer’s own body camera.
Here’s how and why the stop was initiated, as recounted in the North Dakota Supreme Court’s decision [PDF]:
Prior to the traffic stop, the arresting officer was traveling eastbound on Burdick Expressway in his patrol vehicle when he was passed by Boger’s vehicle traveling westbound on the same road. As Boger’s vehicle passed, the officer testified he looked in his driver’s side rear-view mirror and noticed Boger’s rear license plate area was not illuminated. The officer turned around to follow Boger’s vehicle. Once behind Boger’s vehicle, the officer testified he observed the rear license plate was still not illuminated. After approximately five to seven seconds of following Boger’s vehicle, the officer initiated a traffic stop.
The officer testified the rear license plate was not illuminated when he first observed Boger’s vehicle, was not illuminated when he was following Boger’s vehicle, and the license plate illumination light was not functioning during the traffic stop.
The officer’s body camera footage of the stop was entered into evidence. It did not show what the officer testified to under oath.
The video recorded by the officer’s body-worn camera stands in direct conflict with this testimony. As the officer approaches the rear of Boger’s vehicle, the video clearly depicts the rear bumper and license plate for five seconds beginning at the indicated time of T05:38:35Z.1 There is a single white light immediately to the right of the license plate that is fully illuminated. The rear of the vehicle, including the license plate and the light, appear clean.
The ND Supreme Court even includes some frame grabs, which clearly show the license plate light is operational and lit.
The district court ignored all of this, citing the law (which requires it to be “visible from 50 feet away”) and the officer’s insistence that the light observed lighting the license plate originated from another source. It came up with this rationale for the stop, providing the cop with an argument he had failed to articulate.
“Based upon the testimony of [the officer], the alleged illumination did not render the rear license plate clearly legible to [the officer] as the vehicles passed each other.”
Bullshit, says the state Supreme Court. The cop never said anything about it being visible from several feet away. He claimed the light was not functioning at all — something completely contradicted by his own body camera footage. He also said nothing about it being illegible. All he said was the license plate was not illuminated by a license plate light. The video shows the license plate light was operational and lighting the license plate.
The officer’s testimony is inconsistent with the body camera video. The still images from the video clearly show the officer’s testimony is contrary to the video evidence. The images show a license plate light bright enough to reflect off the dark surface below the light.
When there are material factual disputes, it’s time to roll the tape.
The video evidence in this case clearly rebuts the officer’s testimony. We agree with the Indiana Supreme Court that in situations “where the video evidence indisputably contradicts the trial court’s findings, relying on such evidence and reversing the trial court’s findings do not constitute reweighing.” Love, 73 N.E.3d at 699. We conclude the court’s finding that the license plate was not illuminated is contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence.
And there’s no good faith reward waiting for the officer at the end of this decision. While reasonable mistakes of law can sometimes salvage bad stops, it’s not happening here.
While video confirmation of mistakes do not render the mistake of fact per se objectively unreasonable, this mistake of fact would have had to persist from the initial contact with the driver through the length of the stop. Based on the record presented to the district court, we conclude a mistake of fact regarding whether the rear license plate was illuminated was objectively unreasonable.
The stop is unjustified and the defendant will be allowed to withdraw his conditional guilty plea. That’s what should happen when testimony is contradicted by recordings, especially those made and controlled by the law enforcement officer providing the testimony. And there’s a message being sent to lower courts: when determining the credibility of witnesses, you’re doing no one any favors by deciding cops are more trustworthy than their cameras.